In this age of Hitf/x and StatCast, batted ball velocity is a hotter topic than ever. We only have had access to such data for a limited period of time, but the hypothesizing regarding the loudest contact-makers in the game’s history has been going on as long as the game itself. While we can’t go back and retroactively calculate batted ball velocity, we can go back and calculate contact scores, and make very educated guesses to this eternal question.
I’m sure that most of you reading this piece have your own thoughts on this topic, going back to your childhood, based on the eye test. Personally, I was first wowed by how hard Dick Allen hit the baseball. The next such player was Willie Stargell, followed by Dave Winfield and Bo Jackson. For the youngsters of today, it’s Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper setting the standard. Their ball striking prowess is obviously supported by the StatCast data; how can we go back and compare across eras?
By using raw contact scores, that’s how. Strip away the Ks and BBs, and apply run values to all balls in play based on the norms for that era. Scale it to 100, and you have unadjusted contact scores for all regulars going back to 1901. Since we don’t have access to granular batted ball data going that far backward, we’re not going to be able to adjust for context. That context includes the effects of ballparks, individual player’s speed, and of course, luck. In a given year, that those factors might affect an individual player significantly. Over the long haul, however, raw ball-striking ability, as well as contact quality, the maximization of line drives and minimization of popups, carries the day.
I have done extensive work on pitchers’ contact management ability in the past, utilizing a nearly identical method. In a given season, an elite contact-managing pitcher will have a contact score of 70 or better, and the best contact managers of all time post career marks in the low 80’s, with 100 representing league average. Over time, a truly poor contact-managing starting pitcher might post a career contact score around 110. As you might expect, hitters have a wider range of contact scores.
A league-leading contact score for a hitter might be in the 200 range, or even higher. In fact, 102 individual season contact scores of 226 or higher have been posted since 1901. On the downside, 100 individual season contact scores of 50 or lower have been posted over that span.
So who have been the most authoritative ball-strikers in the game’s modern era? First, some basic parameters. This list is strictly based on average raw contact score for players with 10 or more seasons as a regular. Overall, there are a few players with longer careers, and superior overall contact authority portfolios than a couple of guys on this list. Also, this is clearly not a list of the ten greatest hitters of all time. There is some overlap between the two, but this group as a whole sacrificed contact frequency for contact authority, with extremely positive results overall.
10 – Jim Thome (Career Contact Score = 197.3, 16 qualifying seasons)
Thome was an outlier in many ways throughout his career; he posted a K rate over two standard deviations higher than the league average four times, and a walk rate two standard deviations higher than the league average an amazing 13 times in 16 qualifying seasons. He only had K and BB rates less than one standard deviation higher than league average once apiece. He posted contact scores of 200 or better six times, peaking at 259 in 2001. His career average contact score peaked at 205.3 after the 2002 season, and his three-year peak contact score of 238.2 is the 12th highest of all time.
9 – Lou Gehrig (Career Contact Score = 197.7, 14 qualifying seasons)
One of the best pure hitters on this or any list. His strikeout rate was above league average in his first five years as a regular, but it was then at least a half standard deviation below league average each season between 1932 and 1937, bottoming out at over a full standard deviation below league average in 1934. Like Thome, Gehrig cracked the 200 contact score barrier six times, peaking at 289 — a mark bettered by only five other players ever — in 1927. His career average contact score peaked at 216.0 following the 1928 season, and his three-year peak average of 242.8 also ranks #9 on the all-time list.
8 – Rogers Hornsby (Career Contact Score = 201.1, 15 qualifying seasons)
The first of the eight players with 10 seasons as a regular with career contact scores of 200 or better. In addition to exceptional ball-striking, Hornsby had strong K/BB skills. His K rate was over a half standard deviation above league average only twice, and his BB rate was over a standard deviation higher than league average 10 times, and over two standard deviations higher five times. Hornsby was remarkably consistent; he logged eight seasons with a contact score over 200, including six in a row between 1920 and 1925. His peak mark of 253, however, was the second lowest peak among this top ten. His career average peaked at 209.6 after the 1925 season, and his three-year peak average of 239.2 ranks 11th all time.
7 – Willie Stargell (Career Contact Score = 205.0, 15 qualifying seasons)
Well, my fine-tuned eight-year-old scouting eye was really onto something. Stargell swung really hard in case he made contact; his K rate was over a standard deviation above league average 11 times, and over two standard deviations higher twice. Only one player in baseball history posted single-season contact scores over 300; more on him in a bit. In 1971, Stargell scored a 299, the next best mark. He exceeded the 200 mark nine times, including five in a row beginning with that 1971 season. Among this top ten, he was the only player whose three-year peak period occurred entirely in his thirties, from 1971-73; his three-year peak average of 258.3 ranks 4th on the all-time list. His career average contact score peaked at 207.3 following his age 33 season.
6 – Hank Greenberg (Career Contact Score = 206.0, 10 qualifying seasons)
Greenberg barely makes the minimum seasons criteria, but we’ll cut him a break as he gave four prime years of his career to the war effort. He was a high K/high BB guy, routinely exceeding the league K (9 times) and BB (7) rates by over a full standard deviation. He was amazingly consistent with his ball-striking; his peak contact score of 232 was 21 points lower than the next lowest peak among this group. He exceeded the 200 mark eight times, all consecutively from 1934 through 1946, interrupted only by injury in 1936 and WWII in 1941-44; his lowest contact score over that 13-year span was 208. His three-year peak of 218.0 from 1937-39 was “only” the 18th best ever, and his career average peaked at 212.5 following the 1945 season.
5 – Mickey Mantle (Career Contact Score = 210.6, 17 qualifying seasons)
Not a surprise here, as I have heard many people a generation or two older than myself state that they saw no one hit the ball harder than Mantle. Not as much of an extreme K guy as one might think; his K rate was in the AL’s average range five times, while his BB rate was over two full standard deviations higher than average nine times. Mantle exceeded a 200 contact score 11 times, tied for second-most ever with our #1 and #11 (Ty Cobb) overall finishers. Mantle’s all-time peak was 280 in 1956, and his three-year peak average of 265.7 ranks third overall. His career average peaked at 225.5 following the 1958 season.
4 – Ted Williams (Career Contact Score = 213.7, 17 qualifying seasons)
How good was this guy? He never posted an above average K rate, his BB rate was over two standard deviations above league average 14 times, including 13 qualifying seasons in a row between 1941 and 1958, and he brutalized the baseball on top of it all. He exceeded a 200 contact score 10 times, with a career peak of 279 at age 38 in 1957. He lost five seasons to war service in two separate decades, but managed to post contact scores of 220 or better in all six seasons in the 1940s in which he participated. His three-year peak average of 248.9 was 7th best ever, and occurred very early in his career, from his age 21-23 seasons in 1940-42. His career averaged peaked at 226.2 following the 1947 season.
3 – Dick Allen (Career Contact Score = 219.4, 11 qualifying seasons)
Surprise. Why is Allen, instead of a number of other defining sluggers of their respective eras, this high on the list? First and foremost, it’s about his era. Allen’s raw numbers get overlooked because his entire peak period took place in an extreme pitchers’ era. On the other hand, since it was a such a strikeout-heavy period, Allen’s contact frequency deficiencies also get overlooked. His K and BB rates were over a full standard deviation above league average in nine and eight of 11 qualifying seasons, respectively. He exceeded a 200 contact score in eight of 11 (72.7%) of his qualifying seasons, the second highest rate ever. He peaked at 289 in 1972, and his three-year peak average of 256.6 from 1967-69 is the 5th highest ever. His career average of 233.8 following that 1969 season is the highest peak anyone other than our #1 ever reached. He belongs in the Hall of Fame with the rest of these guys.
2 – Jimmie Foxx (Career Contact Score = 220.1, 14 qualifying seasons)
Another slight surprise, and another deceptively big K and BB guy. K’s were low and BB’s high during his era, but relative to the league, Foxx was an outlier with regard to both. His K rate was over a full standard deviation above league average in 10 of his 14 qualifying seasons; his BB rate exceeded that mark in all 14. Foxx’ peak single-season contact score was 299, at age 24 in 1932. He exceeded the 200 mark in eight of his 14 qualifying seasons, including five in a row from 1932-36. His three-year peak average of 272.6 is second best of all time, and he reached his career peak of 229.1 following the 1936 season.
1 – Babe Ruth (Career Contact Score = 270.1, 17 qualifying seasons)
A man among boys with regard to relative contact authority. Career longevity? He ties Williams and Mantle for most qualifying seasons among the top ten. Single season peak? No other player in history has notched a 300 contact score in a given season. Ruth did so six times, peaking at a ridiculous 381 in 1920. His three-year peak of 336.1 from 1919-21 is 64 basis points than any other player in history. His career contact score peaked at 316.6 following the 1923 season. Sure, Ruth was a big K guy, whiffing at over a full standard deviation higher than the league rate in 13 of his 17 qualifying seasons, but no one has ever come close to hitting the ball as hard as Ruth relative to his peers.
Have to throw in an honorable mention to #11 Ty Cobb. His power is often overlooked in comparison to his other skills, and his longevity — 22 qualifying seasons — outdistances this entire top ten list by a substantial margin. He posted an average contact score of 194.5 over that long career, with 10 straight years between 212 and his career high of 255 from 1909-18. Cobb’s speed and his extreme contact frequency ability — he had an amazing 18 seasons with a K rate of over a full standard deviation below league average — might be the qualities most readily associated with him, but his BIP authority was real.
Barry Bonds? 27th, right behind father Bobby Bonds at 26th. Barry’s exceedingly high BB rates were a huge part of his success. While Barry did post a career-high contact score of 272 in 2001 after his “transformation”, his early-career excellence was much more attributable to contact frequency, speed, defense, and great though not historic batted-ball authority.
Next, some guys who might have cracked the top twenty with a season or two more as regulars. How about Ryan Howard, at 193.6, which would rank 12th, in eight qualifying seasons. He’s falling fast; after his second season, he had a 245.6 career contact score. How about Eric Davis, at 179.1, which would rank 17th, over nine qualifying seasons. A lethal mix of power, speed, defense, and excitement in general, who just couldn’t stay healthy. Or Shoeless Joe Jackson, at 184.0, which would also rank 12th, over nine qualifying seasons. He started his career with seasonal contact scores of 232, 206 and 211, only to see his career snuffed out by the Black Sox scandal a few years later.
How about a special mention for Bo Jackson and his 197.1 contact score over only four qualifying seasons? He was different than the others on this list, with a stratospheric K rate and a poor BB rate. Could such a package lasted 10 years as a regular if he remained healthy? We’ll never know, but top ten all-time ball-striking ability at least gave him a chance.
How about active players with 10 or more seasons as a regular? There are six active players in the Top 100, plus #38 Adam Dunn at 166.4, who retired after the 2013 season. Miguel Cabrera is #37 at 166.4, Alex Rodriguez is #57 at 159.4, David Ortiz is #82 at 148.3, Matt Holliday is #83 at 148.2, Albert Pujols is #89 at 146.2, and David Wright is #95 at 145.0. Wright is fading fast, Holliday got a boost from his early years in Coors Field, and Cabrera and Pujols attribute substantial portions of their greatness to qualitative measures such as strikeout avoidance, in addition to their exceptional ball-striking ability.
There is one current player with a very strong chance of eventually joining the all-time top ten in this category. Giancarlo Stanton has a career contact score of 203.2 entering the 2015 season, and had a 218 mark this year through Sunday’s games. If his K rate doesn’t get out of control, he’ll likely join the all-time greats in this category. Other active players with high career contact scores include Jose Abreu (197.1, 1 qualifying season), Mike Trout (191.2, 3), Joey Votto (175.7, 6), Paul Goldschmidt (174.6, 3), Ryan Braun (165.5, 7), Mark Reynolds (162.6, 8), Mike Napoli (162.0, 7) and Jayson Werth (147.6, 9).
Below, for reference purposes, is some detailed information about the all-time contact score leaders, with 10 or more seasons as regulars:
|Yrs.||CAR AVG||3 YR PK||PK AGE||3 PK RK|
Later this week, we’ll look at the all-time bottom 10 ball-strikers, with 10 or more seasons as regulars.